Kenny Wagner

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William Kenneth (Kinnie) Wagner (February 18, 1903 in Scott County, Virginia – March 9, 1958) commonly known as Kinnie Wagner (although Kennie and Kenny were also used) was a bootlegger in Mississippi, who murdered five people, including three lawmen. He escaped from custody numerous times, but ultimately died in prison.


Wagner left home at the age of fourteen and joined a circus. He became known as a trickshot artist. At the onset of Prohibition he made and sold moonshine. He was an imposing man, six feet three inches tall, weighing 260 pounds.

His troubles with the law began in 1925 when he was arrested in Lucedale, Mississippi, for stealing a watch. Awaiting trial, he overpowered the jailer and stole a horse. A posse tracked him to a shack in the woods, but he shot his way out, killing a deputy. He fled to his native mountains. Meeting his sister and friends on the banks of Holston River, near Kingsport, Tennessee, he engaged in a shootout with five local lawmen, killing two and wounding a third. Wagner fled first on horseback, then on foot. He surrendered to a storekeeper in Waycross, Virginia.

Following a trial in Sullivan County ending with a death sentence verdict (including a temporary escape from the county jail), Wagner staged a successful escape from state prison. He fled to Mexico and became notorious for bank and train robbery but returned to the United States. He killed two men in barroom brawls and subsequently surrendered to a female sheriff in Arkansas. The two men who he killed were Will Carper, and his brother, Sam Carper, and they were at Sam's home, not in a bar, and they were unarmed. [citation needed] The sheriff was Lillie Barber, widow of a slain sheriff. She refused to try Wagner, because in Arkansas, murder in cold blood was a capital offense, and she fell in love with him.

Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas wanted him for murder. Since his first killing was in Mississippi, he was tried there and in 1926 was sentenced to life to be served at Parchman Farm. His first escape attempt was foiled by an informant. However, he was allowed to become an armed trusty and head trainer of the prison's bloodhounds. He tracked escapees alone, armed on horseback. In 1940, he escaped but was located three years later near his old Virginia home. Returned to Parchman, he was again a model prisoner until 1948 when he walked off.[1]

His most notable escape was his last attempt and involved a clever trick that was not discovered until Wagner was outside the prison walls. He had been made a trustee whose job it was to tend the dogs at the prison. He quickly realized the dogs were the means by which the prison guards would track him if he were to escape again. He therefore trained the dogs not to track him by whipping them if they followed his scent.

Wagner remained at large in Wahalak, Mississippi for several years afterward under the alias "Big Jim," and was subsequently placed on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. In 1956, he was recaptured after a jealous rival informed law enforcement officials of his residence at the house of a female friend.

Seriously ill, he stated "I am very happy to be going back to Parchman." He died there in 1958.

Folklore and legacy[edit]

There are several folksongs and ballads about Wagner's escapades. There are several books written about the Mississippi outlaw. And he has also been covered in comics and pulp magazines.

The East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia stories about Kinnie Wagner propose a far different picture of the gunslinger. Even the local newspaper The Kingsport Times News in Kingsport, Tennessee maps out the events that led to Wagner's initial crime, intended arrest, and eventual capture very differently from their Mississippi counterparts.

Folklorists have explained that Wagner had been cast into the stereotype of the Southern or Western outlaw: chivalrous to women, generous to the poor, a free desperado.[1]


  1. ^ a b David M. Oshinsky, Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, Free Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0684830957, Chapter 7: "The Other Parchman: White Men, Black Women", pages 166-168.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gentry, Claude. The Guns of Kinnie Wagner. Magnolia (1969) ASIN B0007F29ZM
  • Sweterlitsch, Richard Carl. Kinnie Wagner: A Popular Legendary Hero and His "Constituency" Indiana University Press (1976) ASIN: B000JWZ54U

External links[edit]